Here is a recipe for a great way of life: Low taxes. Lower government regulation. Abundant public transportation. A strong currency. Low unemployment. City along a temperate lake. Mountains for hiking and skiing one hour away. Financial center of the world. No buildings over six stories high. The best shopping in the world for shoppers without a budget who seek the highest quality goods.
This is Zurich.
It is also true that prices of everything are astronomical. (A Big Mac is $15 and a hamburger in a fancy restaurant can be $72.) People seem to smoke in public a lot (or maybe that’s just a consequence of using public transportation, because people who smoke need a hit just before they get on the tram and just after they get off.) It’s hard to get someone on the street to return a look in the eye, much less to smile at you. Everything is very precise, so when something does not go according to form, the wheels can come off of the tricycle of the locals pretty quickly. (Because I left my luggage cart in the wrong place, I incurred public scorn from the small man in the big uniform who checked my passport at the airport.) Because everything is precise, you’d better be on time….or else. One suspects that the precision of the place just might have a little impact on the creativity and individuality of its citizens.
A friend and I spent three days in Zurich recently. Our goal was to learn how the financial services industry works there. We got to meet a number of highly professional bankers, attorneys, accountants, venture capitalists, family office managers and financial advisors. My favorite visit was with two of the partners of Emerald Technology Ventures. The business community there works like a Swiss watch, if you’ll pardon the use of an obvious pun.
We were sad but not surprised to learn that for most of the people we met, the United States is an afterthought for business. The emerging markets of Asia and Africa are where capital is flowing right now. In spite of the political uncertainties in those markets, especially compared to the relative stability of the American political and social scenes, capital is flowing to markets where it can get higher returns. That’s probably because those markets are starting from a lower point and so the percent growth rates can be much higher than in the developed economies.
On our last night in town, we finally saw a different side of Zurich. After attending the opera we headed for the piano bar at the Hotel Widder. After waiting a few minutes for a table, one opened up in the corner. I plopped down on the red leatherette and proceeded to upset the table cards on the table of the two women sitting next to us. They got a large charge out of this and that’s all it took to start a conversation. (Maybe the fact that they were on their second or third drink helped a bit?)
We discovered that both of them are self-employed. Maria is a photographer who helps advertising agents show their clients’ products and people from the best angle possible. Eva is a tailor. They are both doing what they want to do and have moved to Zurich from the small towns in Switzerland where they grew up.
They explained the kinds of things that we would have learned if we’d met them during Language Study Abroad in our sophomore years of college. What kind of music did they like? Why in the world do men and women kiss each other three times on the cheek when coming and going? How could they possibly find a place where they could afford to live? Do the natives really eat the melted cheese dish called raclette or is it just designed to slow down the tourists who eat it? How often do people get to ski in those ever-present Swiss Alps?
After three days of laughing only between ourselves, Fred and I finally got to laugh with the natives. And even the short but unpleasant encounter at the airport passport check couldn’t ruin that laughter.